Should Britain be run by Tesco?

The company's record ain't great

Congratulations to Alex Brummer, who won two prizes at this week's inaugural Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He picked up a gong for financial column of the year and also bagged a second prize for best magazine commentator, for his work in the New Statesman.

But I have to disagree with the great man about his column in today's Daily Mail, headlined: "What if Tesco ran the country?"

Let's be honest. We all love Tesco. OK, let me rephrase that. Even those of us who care about low pay, workers' rights and corporate social responsibility and who normally take a rather dim view of big business often end up making the confession that I am about to make: I spend about two or three nights a week shopping at my local Tesco superstore. I can't help it -- Tesco makes life so convenient.

But I have to draw the line at running Britain along the lines of Sir Terry Leahy's multibillion-pound corporate behemoth. Here's something to give you a flavour of Alex's column:

How different Britain might have been had Gordon Brown got his way and managed to persuade Sir Terry Leahy, the quiet man who leads Tesco, to run the National Health Service.

But if Leahy, who is married to a GP, had agreed to take on this mammoth task, he would never have made the botch of a job that New Labour has achieved . . .

In so many other areas, a country run according to Tesco principles would have meant a dramatic improvement in the population's living standards . . .

There are so many other areas where Britain could have benefited from the Tesco touch . . .

Allowing mistakes to drag would be anathema in Tescoland.

Hold on! As I said, I'm as big a fan of Tesco as the next man when it comes to a convenient and cheap weekly shop . . . but running the country? It would be AWFUL. Alex makes no reference to the various critiques of Tesco made in recent years by the green, sustainable and trade union movements.

He makes no mention, for example, of the Competition Commission's recommendation, early this month, that the government "take the necessary steps to introduce a competition test in planning decisions on larger grocery stores". The CC's proposal, writes Alex Renton, "acknowledges that 'Tesco towns' like Swansea, Truro and Inverness -- where £3 in every £4 is spent with the retailer -- are a bad thing". (By the way, Renton also writes that "if you do shop at Tesco, by the way, bear in mind that the store has a 30 per cent share of British grocery retail and has been doing gloriously out of you through the recession, with sales up yet again in the first six months of the year, and pre-tax profits now just under £1.5bn for the period".)

In his Mail column, extolling the virtues of a hypothetical Tesco-led Britain, Brummer also fails to mention any the numerous local campaigns against the firm's expansion plans across the country. Nor does he mention a story reported in his own paper, in August, about how Tesco used "bogus" statistics to try to convince the residents of Manningtree to back "its efforts to expand its supermarket empire":

Britain's biggest retailer sent leaflets to residents in an Essex town claiming its own research demonstrated there was a "need and demand" for a new supermarket.

However, the telephone poll used as the basis of the claim showed that just 38 out of the 440 people surveyed wanted a new supermarket -- 8.6 per cent.

While even fewer people, just 20, said they would like to see a new Tesco.

Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemns the leaflet as misleading and has ordered the supermarket not to send it out again.

But perhaps most importantly, if Brummer is right, and Leahy would do a better job of running the country than Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, how does he explain this letter from Barack Obama, of June 2008? The then presidential candidate and junior senator from Illinois took time out from his campaign to write to Sir Terry, complaining about the firm's lack of engagement with "community stakeholders" in the United States and lending his support to a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, which Tesco's American operation, Fresh & Easy, had refused to meet with, let alone recognise. "I strongly request that you revisit that decision," wrote Obama, warning that workplace rights would have a prominent place on his presidential policy platform. "I again urge you to reconsider your policy of non-engagement in the United States."

If you think Brown had problems with Obama, how do you imagine a Tesco-led Foreign Office would handle the "special relationship"?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.